Videogames suck

Spec Ops: The Line is STILL a Bad Videogame

The designer’s day off


As established in the previous article, Spec Ops: The Line is a Bad Videogame.

So why are we still hearing about it? Why isn’t it already relegated to a bargain bin? Why is it being hailed in some quarters as an important landmark? Why did someone write a fucking novel on it?

There are two answers to this question, depending on the level of pretentiousness of the writer:

  1. This game makes a mature, original, and provocative statement about the realities of war for front-line troops, or ‘It is Good Narrative.’ As I argued in the previous post, Spec Ops: The Line’s narrative merely serves to highlight the culture of immaturity that plagues the medium and little else.


  1. This game “holds a mirror up to gamers” and forces them to examine their motives for playing a violent war game, or ‘It is Good Art/Commentary.’ Exploring this idea is the main focus of this post.

You’ll note that both arguments completely ignore the mechanics of the game elements, and for good reason, because it is exactly the mechanics that further undermines what is already a poor excuse for both narrative and art. Yet, it is very much the fact that Spec Ops is ostensibly a game that it earns its praise, because only by comparing it against its contemporary gaming peers does this mess seem noteworthy.

The de-emphasising of game mechanics is a problem that lies, not only with the developers, but also with a videogaming press that craves validation. By and large, with a few notable exceptions, the videogames press is constantly looking over the fence at literature, film, and art and they want to have that. They want the pat on the head from society at large, not content with praise coming solely from within the broader gaming community. They want to grab the attention of the gatekeepers of culture, get them to look over at gaming and say, ‘heck, maybe these guys are onto something.’ They want this so badly that they are willing to valorise games that are completely vapid mechanically, but mimic the conventions and language of other mediums, primarily cinema. The appropriation, often in name only, of critically acclaimed artefacts from other mediums is another symptom of the problem.

Rockstar are one of the most prolific practitioners of trying to shoe-horn the language of film into videogames. Take Max Payne 3 as an example. Rockstar acquired the IP, originally a wry, tongue-in-cheek take on the hard-boiled noir, and used it to blatantly remake the film Man on Fire, without considering that players would find it jarring that a redemption story was wedged between gameplay that is best described as a lengthy, psychopathic killing-spree. To their credit, they did their best to de-emphasise the gameplay by making it impossible to skip the lengthy ‘cinematic’ cutscenes. When you leave videogaming to gamers, we get Counter-Strike and Day Z. When you leave videogames to aspiring film-makers and other assorted hacks, whohave this “really great story” they want to tell, we get Hitman: Absolution and Black Ops.

When you read interviews with Yager Studios, the developers of Spec Ops, you feel that they never really wanted to make a game; while nominally Spec Ops is a videogame, it doesn’t want to be one. The developers repeat contextually-meaningless mantras such as “stage the scene” and “character arc” like true disciples of McKee’s one-size-fits-all approach to screenwriting. They make it clear that good writing was a priority. It didn’t matter if everything else was derivative, the writing had to be original and push boundaries. This attitude really shows in the final product. The explanation put forward was that they were destined to make a military shooter before the writing even started. In the case, the writing staff should have sent a memo to the games designers telling them not to include mechanics and animations that were so dependent on glorifying ultra-violence and other assorted military clichés. As it stands, the narrative and the gameplay are so diametrically opposed, that a literary equivalent would be somewhat like a publishing house printing Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man on parchment made from human skin. It just doesn’t work.

Funny unGames and …

Tom Bissel regards Kane and Lynch 2 as “a peerless masterpiece” so I feel pretty comfortable saying he enjoys Bad Videogames, however even he commented on the ludonarrative dissonance found in Spec Ops, and how it undermines the intention:

“The most terrifying enemy in the game, for instance, is a guy with a knife …Your squad mates will alert you to the knife guy’s presence, which is never not hilarious. Everyone’s got automatic weapons and the dude with a knife is the single most terrifying enemy onscreen … I know why melee weapons are eight times more deadly than rifles in most shooters. It’s about balance. Provided that a shooter is not taking itself too seriously, I accept dumb balancing conventions. But when a game is asking you to think about what onscreen killing means, and why any of us like to engage in it, the appearance of Terrifying Knife Guy bursts any fragile bubble of contemplation.”

It’s not just ludonarrative dissonance that Spec Ops struggles with; Spec Ops is undermined by a complete thematic breakdown. The characters themselves don’t have consistent motivations or personalities. They are okay with slitting an enemy’s throat while callously saying, “Sweet dreams, bitch,” but when confronted with collateral damage they’ll complain angrily that “[Walker] turned us into killers!” Players are meant to understand that use of white phosphorus is barbaric, but when designating a target the player barks, “Burn it.”

Co-writer Richard Pearsey claims he sees the game as more of a mystery waiting to be solved than a shooter. In his mind, the true objective is to piece together what exactly has happened in Dubai. The gameplay strongly disagrees. The very first time you incapacitate an enemy, a potential source of intel, the game immediately instructs you to stomp on his neck, and for this the player is rewarded with fifteen extra bullets. To demonstrate that this is a mature and contemplative moment, the player character utters the line “I thought we were meant to rescue people.” Really? How many people are three heavily armed soldiers going to rescue? Do they have a medic? A translator? Transport? Extra food, water, or medical supplies? The game is presenting me one thing, yet the narrative is telling me another. Later, Konrad mocks the player for their foolishness in trying to rescue people with guns, which I’d accept as a valid criticism if the game were called Peace Corp: The Line, rather than the ninth iteration of a series of military shooters bearing the Spec Ops brand. Despite whatever the developers rattle off about character arcs and their descent into darkness narrative, everything you need to know about the game is revealed in that first throat stomp: “No matter what the narrative is going to claim, you’re going to kill everything – get used to it.” It’s every shooter you’ve played before, only now with self-aware taunts added to the loading screens.

The blog Space Ramblings noted the similarities between Spec Ops: The Line and Michael Haneke’s film, Funny Games; a movie with so much of the violence Haneke was trying to critique, that he decided to make it twice. I guess his artistic statement was just too important to go unnoticed. I could easily quote the whole article, but you should just go read it here; It’s short. Funny Games tried to act like a conversation about violence in the media wasn’t already happening, and if it was, no-one in the target audience was listening, or was smart enough to understand. So, he made the film specifically to berate those people, twice. Spec Ops takes a very similar didactic approach.

…the artlessness of Spec Ops

Lately, I’ve noticed that when people write about videogames they tend to talk up the interactive narrative, and I often get the impression that they consider it to be a characteristic that is unique to, and defines, videogames. Theatre, stand-up comedy, performance art, and art installations are also capable of demonstrating a high-level of interactivity, and all are quite capable of surpassing Spec Ops on that metric. An example of successful shock art installation, similar in intent to Spec Ops in that it aims to incriminate the viewer, is the Helena exhibit by Danish artist, Marco Evaristti. For Helena, Evaristti placed ten live goldfish in ten blenders, all quite visibly plugged into a power board and ready to go. There was no other incitement to press the button or not; everything was up to the viewer. The viewer had space to consider the work and the implications of the exhibit. What I found most interesting was that when someone finally pressed a button, (as far as I can tell, a button has only been pressed twice in the history of the exhibit) the people charged with animal cruelty were the artist and the gallery, not the person who pressed it. One wonders how Yager Studios can seek to lay blame on a player, considering the man-hours invested in the creation of Spec Ops compared to the average time it takes to complete the videogame.

If Yager Studios had designed Helena, I imagine it would play out like this:

You enter a small room and the only way out is through a red door that says “To the Exhibit.” You turn the doorknob and enter the room. It’s another small room and there are ten blenders on the table filled with bits of fish. Behind them is a screen playing reverse-angle footage of you opening the red door which you discover is connected to a complex mechanism that turned on all the blenders for just long enough to blast all the goldfish into soup. After you have watched the video and looked at the goldfish for an appropriate amount of time, you are allowed to go back out, where you are now met by a pink neon sign that flashes: “Have many goldfish have you killed today?” You are then taken into custody by police and charged with animal cruelty, though it turns out the goldfish were never real.

Linking back to the Bissel quote earlier, and what he describes as the “fragile bubble of contemplation,” there is simply very little time or space for the player to consider their actions outside of what the narrative tells them, or the game forces them to do.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game

Spec Ops is a linear game that removes almost all player agency, spoon-feeds you shit you’re meant to swallow, then rubs it in your face and calls you a bad person. It’s utterly risible in execution. That the developers can say, “if you want to win you should take out the disc,” is beyond the pale, especially when they set out to create a videogame that is entirely dependent on the story. Can you ‘win’ Titanic by stopping the DVD after they fuck in the car? Can you ‘win’ To Kill A Mockingbird by putting the book down before the verdict?

The narrative concern with virtual murder in Spec Ops are so didactic in their presentation that it borders on a superiority complex, yet the gameplay itself blithely mimics every other real-world, violent, jingoistic shooter. And just when you thought the plot was going to do something interesting, something that the more Brechtian elements hinted at, the game either plunged straight back into some emotional narrative moment, or hand-waved it away with the suggestion the story was all in the character’s head.

Why make a violent, jingoistic cover shooter at all? Why spend countless hours and millions of dollars planning, executing and marketing this, if it is truly something that we should feel wrong or unsettled about?

I believe it’s because Yager Studios wanted, from the start, to make a violent, jingoistic cover shooter. It’s what they knew how to do. In their view that was what people wanted. They wanted to because of the industry, because of where the money is. They wanted to take the quick path and grab the low-hanging fruit. Walt Williams claims that the brief was ‘squad based, military shooter in Dubai’ and after that they had free reign. How did they use the free reign? They used it to create a bloodbath, replete with hangings, stonings, torture, and extra-brutal kills. The only difference between Spec Ops: The Line and its peers is the attempt to use the narrative to shift a poorly defined sense of guilt or moral culpability from Yager Studios to the players, and then to trot out this line to support a claim that they were doing something new and interesting.

This manipulation of the play through narrative reminds me of similar situation, when the developers of Bioshock likewise attempted to use their linear narrative an as excuse. They tried to cleverly mask the fact that they’d completely sold out the System Shock legacy and had instead made a corridor shooter devoid of player agency. The clever plot twist was that the player-character was being telepathically controlled by the antagonist for the majority of the game. ‘Ahah!’ thought some players, ‘here is our explanation as to why Bioshock is a corridor fetch-a-thon.’ Never mind the fact that, after the ‘big reveal,’ the game continued to play in exactly the same manner, and be exactly the same corridor shooter devoid of any real player agency. The whole twist had no effect on the gameplay; it was simply narrative window dressing.

Of course, there are still enlightened people who comment that the Bioshock twist was appropriately meta and deep, that the developers were making the point that it’s really the videogame that is in control of a player. That’s just fucking dumb. It’s like reading ‘I can’t believe I made you turn the page just then!’ on a new page of a novel when the reader is simply following conventions set by their knowledge of books. It’s exactly the same conceit as when a child says ‘hey you!’ followed by ‘made you look!’ if you do. Maybe it’s a deep commentary on how people are socially wired to react to calls for their attention, or maybe it’s just a kid being a dick. If anything, the Bioshock twist is an unwitting indictment of linear narratives and their utter failure to realise the possibilities of the medium.

Killing is …

Spec Ops: The Line sold poorly, and could be considered a commercial failure compared to its peers in the genre, despite a decent critical reception. It was also far more violent than any of its peers, and the final body-count was tremendous. To me this highlights the fact that the statement – ‘why do gamers enjoy killing?’- comes loaded with two falsities. One, that a virtual depiction of killing can in any way be morally equated with killing. And two, that it’s the depiction of the mechanics being enjoyed by a player, rather than the mechanics themselves.

Perhaps gamers prefer the less brutally depicted games because they don’t enjoy the killing. Instead they prefer the fast-paced action that the shooter genre, and its mechanics, are well-suited to provide – as demonstrated by Painkiller, Serious Sam, Far Cry, etc.

Then there’s the fact that first-person shooters have always been extremely popular as competitive titles – consider titles such as Tribes, Counter-Strike, Quake III: Arena, the Battlefield series, Modern Warfare, Red Orchestra, Natural Selection, and so on. The most popular competitive shooter of recent years has been the Modern Warfare series. You could argue that it’s because people enjoy guiltlessly killing other people (and does it then follow that the bad players enjoy being killed?) However, I’d argue that Modern Warfare series is popular due to the low health and frantic pace that offers a more level playing field for players of all skill levels, as well as system that offers little punishment for ‘dying,’ and the virtual ‘crack’ of advancement bonuses and unlocks.

A lot of assumptions that Yager Studios make about gamers are drawn from popularity of the Modern Warfare series, such as the contention that people play shooters because they want to be the hero, the good guy. This is silly. If you make a game with challenging mechanics, people will play it, regardless of which side of a fake conflict the story places them on. Do people choose to be Terrorists in Counter-Strike for ideological reasons, or for access to weapons they believe are mechanically better? Do they play Terrorists because they have a fascination with explosions, bombs, and bomb-making, or because they believe that Terrorists have a gameplay advantage on the particular map?

The biggest problem I have with the fuss about depictions of killing in games is that people simply lift moral dimensions from the real-world act of killing, and then apply them without further thought or argument.

If you kill some in the real-world, most people would accept that they won’t later return to the world in any recognisable state. But what if you shot someone in the face in the real-world, knowing that in ten seconds they would come back to life – is that killing? If you’re playing paintball and you shoot your friend, taking him out of the round – is that killing? Does an actor playing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet kill the actor playing Mercutio? Would he be arrested after the show, and waved into the back of the police vehicle by the miraculously reincarnated Mercutio?

How can you kill someone in a multiplayer videogame where all players understand that there is no finality? Even in a ‘perma-death’ game such as Day Z you can still re-enter the world and try again. But Spec Ops: The Line isn’t a multiplayer title (at least as far as Yager Studios is concerned) and the linear narrative adds a little more complexity to the issue. Looking at linear narratives in general; in books and films you could claim that characters are killed when, using the logic of the diegetic world, the audience believes that the character is removed from the world permanently. This is possible because the narrative progresses completely linearly e.g. Matt Damon’s character is killed in The Departed when he is shot in the head; you can rewind the film as many times as you want, but at that point he is always killed. However in videogames, even one as linear and narrative-focussed as Spec Ops, I don’t think you can make as clear-cut a statement.

Imagine you’re playing Spec Ops: The Line and you’re in an area with two generic enemies. You shoot one of them and they fall to the ground. Is that character removed from the game? Are they alive or dead? Have you just killed them? One perspective is simple enough; no, they are not dead. They were simply a mechanical obstacle destined to be recreated later in the game with the exact same model defining their appearance, the exact same actor defining their voice, and the exact same code defining their behaviour. However, even if you take the view that the instance is unique due to a particular setting or challenging moment then, at best, you’re left with perspective two: at that moment, the enemy is neither dead nor alive. Why? Because, while it’s entirely possible that you will shoot the second enemy, proceed through a checkpoint and never play that section again: enemy is dead, it’s also possible that the second enemy kills you, forcing you to replay from the beginning of the checkpoint: enemy is alive. “Oh man I have to kill this guy again,” you mutter, not realising how logically absurd the statement is. In a single, uninterrupted playthrough, you might experience shooting the same enemy in the face three, five, eight times. It’s Schrödinger’s Cat in reverse; the enemy is only truly dead when the videogame and its designers decide it’s appropriate to ‘measure’ the progress via a checkpoint, leaving the players actions within the box largely meaningless until such time. I realise we’re heading towards the philosophical but shouldn’t that be tackled first? Shouldn’t there first be a discussion on the possible existence of culpability before meting it out to players, developers, and the industry as a whole?

Personally don’t believe that players should be excused of responsibility as much as I believe they have no responsibility. The claim that a player who chooses to play a shooter is obligated to feel emotionally culpable for the violence is as absurd as claiming that a player who chooses to be the banker in Monopoly is obligated to understand fractional reserve regulations. Not only that, but that the insistence on creating games that try to directly influence the player through structured narratives is detrimental to gaming as a whole. It’s disappointing to read the many writers who think the opposite, and wade straight into the moral argument deep-end without even defining or outlining how certain actions in games can even have a real world moral equivalency.


18 thoughts on “Spec Ops: The Line is STILL a Bad Videogame

  1. “If anything, the Bioshock twist is an unwitting indictment of linear narratives and their utter failure to realise the possibilities of the medium.”

    Based on Levine’s promises long before launch and the long gap between that and what came out in 2007 I think it was entirely intentional. Bioshock was intended to be something of a mash-up between STALKER and System Shock 2. For lack of funding it was, obviously, neither of these things. Damn shame. The first half of Bioshock would have made a great prologue to the game they wanted to make. Glad you wrote this up.

  2. Agree whole-heartedly about Bioshock. The twist is completely undermined by the gameplay that follows it. If they had followed through, and had the rest of the game post mind control be non-linear and undirected, I could appreciate the reverence for it. But as it stands it’s a lazy “gotcha”, being shit but saying “look how shit I’m being!”, as if that forgave it.

    • I have. I don’t.

      To clarify: It’s typical EC. Poorly researched (other games did what SO:TL did with making the game an indictment of the player years ago, such as Manhunt – which also purposefully made the game unfun to strengthen the indictment, and Rockstar North hasn’t made a game like that since) and shallow with some downright silly conclusions to top it off. It’s a textbook example of what Mikeefunks was talking about. SO:TL is just different enough that people are projecting a mountain of depth onto it. It’s not a roguelike or a sandbox game and there’s no room for that. It’s not original in any way and it’s beyond pretentious. It’s right up EC’s alley.

      • Oh you mean other than Manhunt 2?
        Also I think you might want to look up the word ‘pretentious’ because I don’t think it means what you think it means. People need to stop overusing that word for things that they don’t agree with.

      • Manhunt 2 was not made by Rockstar North. Rockstar London made the PS2 and PC versions, the PSP port was made by Rockstar Leeds and Rockstar Toronto did the Wii port. If you’re going to correct someone make sure you have your facts in order. SO:TL is pretentious. It attempts to be and its creators claim it to be something it clearly is not. It even goes beyond it to the point of outright hypocrisy.

  3. You make some excellent points against the way that this particular game is presented in such a linear fashion, but from the tone you take while making those points against it, I can’t help but wonder if your intent is to condemn linearity in games at all.

    I fully understand that the potential in an interactive medium is great, as well as why the notion that games should be “cinematic” for the sake of imitating cinema is a terrible one, but I really can’t put those two together and come out with the conclusion that a game carrying a linear narrative with the dramatic weight of cinema is a terrible thing, nor can I get myself to think that someone should be ashamed to use the platform of video games to express a vision that leans heavily on the idea of an experience that is primarily a narrative, and not necessarily focused on the intricacies of fine tuned gameplay.

    Bioshock, to take an example you made, had gameplay that was more of an excuse to be interactive than a driving force behind the game itself, but I can’t help but remember fondly the way that I found myself “discovering” each area as the game handed them to me, in ways that wouldn’t be possible in cinema, but still were cinematic in nature. The way everything unfolded, and the game pushed all its smaller worldbuilding ideas and bits of characterization weren’t part of the problems that bogged down the experience as a whole, and yet they were inextricably tied in to the delivery as a game that was trying very hard to resemble other art forms.

    I might just not be picking up what you’re laying down very well, but I definitely think that it’s possible for a game to focus on the narrative in a fashion resembling cinema without it being a stupidly “ironic” self serving mess, as you’ve rightfully mocked The Line for being. Lacking freedom in expressing a message isn’t necessarily the game screaming “Stop hitting yourself!” at you every time you progress.

  4. You are to video games what Pitchfork is to music. Although well argued, I find your case to be an overly-intellectualized take on what is a simple and obvious piece of entertainment. The game may not have come down in a golden chariot from the heavens, but it never intended to, and was a cut rate shooter that offered more than most of its peers did.

    If your major beef with the title is its hard lined reliance on cinematic technique and tropes, and a linear narrative, then what exactly were you expecting from it?

    It plays well enough, it looks decently attractive for a stop and pop shooter, and it has more character than the jingoistic war games a consumer is used to seeing.

    The Line may be rude to its audience (although certainly not quite as self-servingly as Funny Games) but it presents an immersive if not fully interactive narrative that’s as satisfying as anything I’ve played in years.

    You have my respect for looking at a medium which often falls victim to a lack of sophistication in a very sophisticated way, but your commentary seems to rely on preconceived notions of what a game is and must be, rather than a direct and critical assessment of the title.

    Sorry for any dickishness, but your article prompted a strong response from me. That’s good, isn’t it?

    • Dude, that’s precisely what he’s done. It is a direct and critical assessment BASED on the notion of what a game should be. Like how, you know, most game reviews should be.

  5. Can you come up with a game that had a linear story that you liked? If you can I suppose it would give some validity to this article, but seeing as your examples of good games not made by ‘assorted hacks’ are DayZ and Counter Strike, which are solely gameplay and have no real story (and are therefore really rather terrible comparisons for you to bring up) I’m struggling to believe that your problem with Spec Ops is that the narrative is bad and not that you just don’t like linear narratives.

    I also think that it’s incredibly ignorant to dismiss games like Spec Ops and Max Payne 3 practically just for having stories. While in each case there are some flaws in each of the narratives (or the developers placing so much emphasis on them), it seems to me that you just want to play games that are comprised of nothing but gameplay and I think that if that’s the case, fine, but it’s very unfair to chastise games that don’t conform to what you like in a game. I don’t enjoy RTS games, so should I just criticise any game that uses RTS elements?

    I’m beginning to see an increasing trend in people who play games condemning games for not focusing on gameplay enough, and while such condemnation does have some validity, were it not for people looking to get more out of a game’s narrative and themes, gaming would continue to be an incredibly shallow experience. Games have the potential to be an interesting and thought provoking interactive art form but that’s something that will never happen if all gaming was as limited as experiences like Counter Strike and DayZ, which while fun in their own right, are very shallow experiences that encourage little to no thought on the player beyond what is happening on the screen.

    The content of the article aside, your writing style is very poor and comes off as overly biased, antagonistic really, to the point where it is difficult to care about anything you are saying if you don’t happen to share the same opinion. I understand that this is your opinion and that alone is going to make for a fairly argumentative article, but phrases like ‘spoon-feeds you shit’, ‘assorted hacks’ and ‘that’s just fucking dumb’, in addition to an over emphasis on swearing, makes your article sound both belligerent and at times nothing shy of childish. If this is how you wish to express yourself that’s not up to me, and I’m sure you will develop a fair amount of readers who agree with your opinions and will want to share your argumentative articulation, but if you are trying to convince people who don’t already agree with you that your opinion is valid, your writing style really needs to change. It would be a shame to see your future writings suffer because of this as I do believe you have some interesting points to express.

    In addition, given that the writing is as poor as it is, I can’t help but notice the irony at the claim that this site was made in response to the “anti-intellectual echo-chamber that currently dominates videogame discourse”, but I digress, there is enough negativity in the gaming community as it is, for your next article it would be enjoyable to read a positive opinion you have about a topic in gaming.

  6. Hah, you don’t allow comments that convey some genuine criticism to pass through moderation?

    Well this blog is going to go far.

  7. Hello there, You’ve done a fantastic job. I will definitely digg it and personally recommend to my friends. I’m confident they’ll be benefited from this site.

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